Approximately 68% of U.S. households own a pet.[1] It has become increasingly common for pet parents to share a meal, trip, and even a bed with their furry children. While pets are being treated more like kids and less like a tangible good, family law statutes throughout the United States fail to treat a dog or a cat any different than a lamp when it comes to divorce. Courts have remained detached from hearing, ruling, or enforcing pet custody and/or visitation arrangements.  The household pet is simply another asset to be allocated.

Legally speaking pets in a divorce proceeding have been callously deemed to be personal property, rather than something sentient. The seminal Florida First District case of Bennett v. Bennett[2] summed up pet parents’ rights as follows, “[w]hile a dog may be considered by many to be a member of the family, under Florida law, animals are considered to be personal property. … There is no authority which provides for a trial court to grant custody or visitation pertaining to personal property.” Furthermore the Court goes on to say, “Determinations as to custody and visitation lead to continuing enforcement and supervision problems. Our courts are overwhelmed with the supervision of custody, visitation, and support matters related to the protection of our children. We cannot undertake the same responsibility as to animals.”[3] The tenor in Bennett has in essence been uniformly adopted as the approach towards pets throughout the United States.  However, Alaska is now chartering a new frontier.

Alaska may have been one of the last States to join the union, but it is the first to treat pets like family in the eyes of the law. On January 17, 2017, Alaska became the first state to enact pet custody legislation. [4] While this is a quantum leap in and of itself, Alaska takes things one step further by instructing the Courts that pet custody disputes are to be decided based on what is in the best interests of the animal, rather than the interests of the parties to the divorce. Courts in years past were hesitant to become entangled in the fray of pet custody and visitation, but now Alaska has codified the Court’s review of an animal’s welfare in family disputes.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund has commended Alaska’s approach as being “groundbreaking”. While many families view pets as more than property, our nation’s family laws never have made the departure. In Illinois pets remain characterized as personal property. Practitioners await to see if Alaska’s approach will have an influence in our laws and that of other states throughout the nation.

[1] 2017-2018 APPA National Pet Owners Survey, American Pet Products Association, available at http://www.americanpetproducts.org/press_industrytrends.asp. 

[2] 655 So.2d 109, 110 (Fla. 1st DCA 1995).

[3] Id.

[4]  Alaska – H.R. 147 (2017) (enacted), available at http://www.legis.state.ak.us/PDF/29/Bills/HB0147A.PDF.

Marie Sarantakis is the Principal Attorney of Sarantakis Law Group, Ltd. Ms. Sarantakis concentrates her practice in family law. In addition to her work in the courtroom, she is versed in alternative methods of dispute resolution as a mediator and Fellow of the Collaborative Law Institute of Illinois. She was recently recognized by Super Lawyers as a Rising Star, named as one of the Top 10 Family Law Attorneys Under 40 in Illinois by the National Academy of Family Law Attorneys, and featured as a Fellow of the National Association of Distinguished Counsel. 

Ms. Sarantakis is active in the legal community and serves as Chair of the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division Children & the Law Committee, an elected Assembly member and Young Lawyers Division Member of the Illinois State Bar Association, and on the Board of Governors of the West Suburban Bar Association. She also serves as a Young Professionals Board Member of Illinois Legal Aid Online and as an Associate Board Member of the Lawyers Assistance Program of Illinois.

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